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Some 50-odd 50-somethings ambled into the Bethesda Theatre Cafe last Sunday afternoon, exchanging the day’s sunshine for mauve vinyl chairs and climate control, for a lit-Ph.D. double feature: Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony, a 56-minute documentary on the Gilded Age author, and The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese’s 1993 costume dramatization of her superlative novel. Folks chattered away while awaiting show time, sipping tea and munching plates of nachos shuttled over by Dockers-clad employees. Finally, Pamela Peabody, a slight woman dressed in Narragansett-chic blue jeans and a gold-buttoned blazer, assumed the spotlight to introduce her Wharton documentary to one of its first D.C.-area audiences.
Peabody, the American producer of the Wharton bio, explained that her film is part of French TV station France 3’s ongoing documentary series on authors. She recounted how she traveled to the France 3 studios in Brittany back in July 1998 to edit the film with its French producers. The continental filmmaking style confounded her. “They edit things differently,” the producer remarked. “So it was quite a struggle in many ways.” She offered no elaboration on editing a la francais.
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Friction happens, and Peabody has likely gotten her own editing method down cold in the 20 years she’s been producing documentaries here in the District. Her resume includes films on artists Robert Rauschenberg and Dorothy Hood, some of which have aired on PBS. For the Wharton film, Peabody was charged with production duties on this side of the pond, including coordinating shooting and fundraising.
Given that Wharton lived and died in France, you’d figure the author was an honorary demoiselle of the Republic. Not so. Peering over her rainbow-colored plastic-framed glasses, Peabody said, “In France, nobody knows Edith Wharton’s name.” Plenty of American scholars do, though, and Peabody and her production team recruited Wharton biographers, including aristo-scribe Louis Auchincloss, to appear in the film. Drowning in blue blood (or at least appearing to), the cast of biographers and historians screams Wharton, who trained her gimlet eye on her own highfalutin social circles.
But purebred pedigree doesn’t lend immunity from workaday snafus. When the film reel rolled, the titles dissolved into a field of magenta. After several starts and rewinds, and many trips between her table and the projection room, Peabody proffered a VHS copy of her film. A smaller, but decidedly color-corrected, version popped up on screen.
After the screening, when folks gathered to congratulate the producer, talk drifted to the film’s problematic start. Neither cafe employees nor Peabody could figure out what had happened—they just thanked her for bringing a backup.
As one gentleman remarked to a friend, “I’m glad she carries a spare.”—Jessica Dawson